Food policy is intricately connected to today's most relevant political issues and can be used as a framework for examining nearly every area of social justice. And yet, the term "food politics" has yet to permeate the nationwide lexicon. For our friends who need a little help connecting the dots between food and politics, we've compiled this handy list of ways in which food is linked to the broader conversation.
The Healthcare Debate
Diet-related diseases are among the leading contributors to death in the US, making preventive solutions in the form of affordable nutritious food and affordable healthcare a necessity. Examples of nutrition and public health policies at both the local and national levels include calorie labeling, soda taxes and the development of the government-directed Dietary Guidelines, all of which have the potential to impact the nation's health. Which brings us to Washington's favorite hot button topic: healthcare. It is critical that low-income people have access to healthcare, as this is the most at-risk population for diet-related diseases. Preventive solutions - such as nutrition and public health policies that incentivize healthy eating - would cause decreases in the long-term costs of healthcare to our system.
The majority of America's farm workers are recent immigrants who, because they lack many legal protections, are among the lowest paid workers in our economy. As a result, food is at the intersection of labor and immigration issues in several ways. First, agriculture workers are often exposed to unsafe working conditions; farm machinery, exposure to pesticides, injuries incurred by line speeds in meat processing facilities and factory equipment are just a few examples of danger experienced by farm workers. Next, food and farm workers are often paid less than a living wage; they are at the forefront of the growing Fight for $15 movement which seeks to increase the minimum wage across the country and fight against labor exploitation. Lastly, undocumented and guest workers are particularly vulnerable to corporate retaliation when they push for fair wages or safer working conditions (or even for protection from sexual assault or bodily harm). Given the current administration's stance on immigration policy and their public calls to round up and deport undocumented immigrants, farmers - who exist on very thin margins as is - stand to lose a significant portion of their labor force, potentially dramatically altering costs within our food supply.
Though it somehow continues to be overlooked, agriculture is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, more than even the transportation industry. Globally, livestock alone accounts for an estimated five percent of emissions on an annual basis, making the production of industrially produced meat a significant contributor to climate change. Additionally, because industrial meat production requires vast swaths of corn and soy to be grown to feed the animals, animal agriculture is a major contributor to deforestation. Conventional agriculture is also responsible for soil degradation, which depletes soils of nutrients and releases carbon into the atmosphere, and the agricultural sector accounts for 80 percent of water use in the US. Furthermore, the food system is riddled with unsustainable waste streams. The food animal industry accounts for a third of municipal and industrial excrement, which often goes untreated and emits an excess of dangerous gases. A baffling 40 percent of food is wasted and sent to landfills (adding yet more methane to the environment), or is left in the fields. Having opted out of the Paris climate accord, the current administration has declared that they have no intention of addressing climate change, which in turn puts environmental protection high on the list of priorities for food activists.
Natural disasters can prove devastating to the food system, and at every level of the supply chain. This was made evident most recently by Hurricane Maria's landfall. Eighty percent of Puerto Rico's crop value was lost in the hurricane, wrecking farmers' livelihoods, but also impacting local economies and consumers internationally. Distributors struggle to get food to affected areas because of damaged infrastructure. And residents of areas affected by natural disasters are often left without access to food for days on end, making assistance programs crucial. Low-income residents are disproportionately affected by natural disasters; they have less access to evacuation plans, financial security and health insurance, but also have the most trouble getting access to food when supply chains are in jeopardy. SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) - formerly food stamps - is a program built to provide food security for the 41 million food insecure people in the US. During both Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, the USDA provided temporary waivers to purchase hot and prepared foods, a service that is ordinarily unavailable with SNAP purchases. The Trump administration has proposed a $193.3 billion decrease to SNAP benefits over the next decade, making relief like hot food - as well as the assistance normally provided to the food insecure- uncertain at best.
US trade agreements with other countries significantly impact our food and agricultural system, from imports and exports of goods to the movement of labor across borders. Food is still one of America's biggest exports and, as a result, our food trade policies have a big impact on our economy, and what farmers are incentivized to grow and produce. Our recent withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has already caused ire among dairy farmers, who argue that they would have profited greatly from increased exports to China. Concerns over the standardization of regulations across international borders have been raised regarding these trade agreements, as well as concern that they provide corporations with too much power. Certainly as these agreements are currently being renegotiated they will require additional attention and focus onto who will actually take on the cost shifts of our changing trade policies. Renegotiating the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has also been put on the table, which could affect what American farmers choose to produce and export to Mexico and Canada and the price of foods we currently import from those countries. (Think avocados.)
Armed with cooking, nutrition and agricultural education, today's students could reinvigorate the health of an entire generation and reimagine tomorrow's food system. Garden-to-table education programs have been proven to help improve kid's eating habits and instill in young people a better understanding of where their food comes from and of their food supply. Under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the Obama administration required public schools to dramatically reduce salt and fat in school lunches while minimizing portion sizes and increasing grains, fruits and vegetables. Sonny Perdue, the current Secretary of Agriculture, has stated he intends on rolling back these restrictions, despite the fact that studies have shown that for the first time in many years, child obesity rates are dropping.
The political issues in the news today all have the potential to significantly impact not only the systems involved in producing and distributing our food but individuals as well, including everyone from rural immigrant farm workers to city-dwelling consumers. Thus, food is one of the most significant political issues of our time and must stay at the forefront of the conversation.